Using Your Biggest Critic to Implement Change

“The culture shift is finally happening, Misti,” said Carla, so giddy with excitement that I wished I could reach through the phone and give her the world`s biggest high five.  “I got a glimpse of it today. A culture shift in an organization this big is very difficult to see, but I saw it today!”

After many years of service in a large government organization, Carla was recently elevated to a leadership position where she could create the culture changes that were long overdue for her agency. She could foster open information sharing and collaboration among people of all generations and backgrounds, across departments, ensuring an increase in innovation, productivity and job satisfaction for everyone.

While she knew that her goals were in the best interest of the organization and the individual team members, she also knew that creating change in such an old and established organization would be no small task, so her goal came with its own set of fears and uncertainties. But with a clear vision of what needed to be done – the personnel shifts that needed to happen and the end result she hoped to see – Carla geared up her courage and resolve, and set out to make the tough decisions necessary to establish trust and credibility among her new team members, which she knew would be imperative to accomplishing her daunting goal.

The backlash was tremendous. People, especially within the majority of government agencies, get very comfortable with the status quo, so most of her employees resisted the change, even resorting to personal attacks on the character, capabilities and leadership style of the change agent. To make the office politics even more complicated, her new position meant being the boss of several other C-level employees who had previously been her colleagues. And what`s more, no one trusted her yet.

Because Carla was the boss, she could have decided that she didn`t care if anyone liked her changes, told them to deal with it and punished the naysayers. But she did care, and their reactions sent her into tears more than once. She resolved to let those emotions flow through her but not to change her course; she stayed focused on her vision as she made the necessary shifts, continually sharing that vision with anyone who would listen.

But she was overwhelmed and needed some backup. “So I reached out to one of the guys who was highly resisting my changes and asked for his help on a big project,” she explained. “He`d made it clear from the day I became his supervisor that, as a woman, I didn’t belong. But he took on the task and did a great job, and I let him know how much I appreciated his help during such a critical time.”

Rather than worrying about getting her employees to trust her, Carla concentrated on trusting them. She could very easily have gotten tripped up in her own pride when he shared his distaste for a woman in this leadership role. Instead, she offered her trust to him.

The tactic worked.  “A few weeks later, during an executive training workshop, we asked for a volunteer to facilitate part of the session,” Carla recalled. “Slowly, he raised his hand. After the training, he quickly (and quietly) let me know that it felt great to be needed and to be able to contribute.” Seeing past his resistance allowed her to tap into his brilliance, and he is now one of her biggest advocates.

Creating lasting change within any organization requires trust. Here`s how Carla earned it:

  1. Clarify your vision and communicate it consistently. Carla communicates it consistently through her e-mails, in all meetings, on her blog and even on her social media profiles. Even more importantly, she exemplifies and strengthens that message though her decisions.
  2. Empower everyone on your team to share his or her ideas and to contribute to the conversation, no matter what level or tenure each individual has reached. Carla does this by watching and listening to her team members. She does her research, finds out about their past successes, asks them about those triumphs, and then finds roles or projects aligned with their natural talent and passions and that push them to grow.
  3. Be authentic. Carla cries when she needs to and she says it how it is. While on stage at a recent conference, she dropped a few tears on stage. The timing was appropriate, but she could have tried to hide it, especially considering the people in the room. But she let them fall.

Carla’s greatest weapon is her ability to focus on what really matters, rather than getting tripped up in righteousness or ego. It wasn`t easy, but change, after all, is created by humans with their own set of challenges. And rising above those challenges is possible when we know what we’re aiming to achieve.

Thank you for reading and adding your thoughts!

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author, “from Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations

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